Kettlebell swings are one of the foundations of our programs at Industrial Strength. As a movement they are accessible to most people, and the results they deliver are impressive to say the least. Few movements can develop total body strength & power, aerobic conditioning, and overall athleticism like the kettlebell swing. Before diving into swings, working on your deadlifts for a while is a good idea (recommendation from a previous installment of this series is to deadlift your own bodyweight for 5 reps). While the kettlebell swing may look simple enough, there are many nuances that might not be apparent to the untrained eye. It is highly recommended that you work with a coach to learn these, specifically one who is a certified instructor through StrongFirst. If you are not in the Portland area and want to work with a StrongFirst certified instructor, you can search one here. To get you started, below are three key concepts for the kettlebell swing as well as recommendation on how to progress the movement.
1) The body positions of the swing should be almost identical to the deadlift
If you were to do a side-by-side comparison of the swing and deadlift they should look almost identical. In the bottom position for each lift a neutral spine is maintained, the hips sit backwards and are above the knees while staying below the shoulders, and the entire foot is firmly planted on the ground. At the top position of each lift the body form a straight line and is rigid, essentially a standing plank. It is easy to see with these similarities why spending time grooving your deadlift will carry over nicely to learning to swing kettlebells
2) Do not let the weight go too high
One theme that is consistent in nearly every lift we teach is that of core position, and that you should be trying to maintain your cylinder at all times. One reality for most people is that if they swing kettlebells too high they will probably not be able to maintain a reasonably good cylinder. For most people the sweet spot is to stop the arms at a position where they are parallel to the floor (the kettlebell will be at chest height); and do not sweat it if the kettlebell is slightly above or below that level, as long as the core position is solid, the elbows are straight, and the shoulders are packed. What is a problem is when the kettlebell goes so high that the ribs start to lift up, the lower back arches, and we lose that alignment we want (often the head will shoot forward here too if the person tries to swing it noticably higher than their head).
3) Swing explosively, and stop sets before you lose power
The swing should be a “ballistic” effort that is powered by a strong impulse from the hips. A good swing should have a crisp finish to the hips, and the lifter should stand fairly motionless in a “standing plank” while the kettlebell essentially floats up to chest height. If you are new to swings, a few things you want to avoid would be 1) lifting the kettlebell with your arms, and 2) leaning backwards at the top to artificially get the kettlebell higher. If you lift with your arms the kettlebell will probably hang lower than your hands rather than being an extension of your arms, and if you lean back too much you will not be in a standing plank and can put excessive strain on your lower back.
As noted above, working with a qualified coach is highly encouraged. The first priority will be simply learning to do swings safely, which generally means you will start with 2-handed swings. Once you are getting the hang of it you will want to start mixing in 1-handed swings, and generally you will probably want to include more 1-handed reps than you do 2-handed as they give added benefits of grip and core strength. Typically stick with sets of 5-15 reps per set, with 10 being the sweet spot. Use a weight that allows you to perform all of your reps explosively, but if you were asked to do 5-10 additional reps each set that it would be difficult to maintain explosiveness. Initially let your rest periods between sets be organic, and error on the side of more rest rather than less. Every once in a while you can do a “stress test” so to speak, where you will set a timer to beep every 30 seconds, and each round you will do 10 reps of 1-handed swings (first round is left handed, next round right handed). Continue for 10 rounds, so a total of 100 (fifty per hand). A good goal for women is to do that with 24kg / 53lbs, and for men 32kg / 70lbs.